Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nostalgia, A Half-Week After

I felt "It" in the days leading up the Iron Bowl, but I dared not say so, for fear of bringing a jinx to life.

"It" is an eerily serene sense of confidence that Auburn is going to triumph. Leading up to last Saturday, the confidence of "It" was confidence that Auburn would prevent Alabama from ascending to a seat at history's feast which everyone assumed was theirs by birthright.

"It" was not based entirely on logic -- after all, I had mentioned the Sunday before, on this very blog, that "Alabama should win their final two" -- but "It" was strong and persuasive and could not be denied.

I have been cheering and championing Auburn football for decades, and along the way have witnessed a multitude of highs that includes a national championship and troika of undefeated seasons, all despite playing in America's toughest conference. Yet even with all that success, the feeling of "It" is something that visits me only on the rarest of occasions. Before big games, my mind and heart are usually burdened by thoughts of all the ways Auburn might lose; but whenever "It" blesses me, all my mind can think of are the ways Auburn might win, and all my heart can think of is how sweet the win will taste.

Interestingly, I experienced "It" earlier this season, in the week prior to the Texas A&M game. I also felt "It" throughout December 2010 and early January 2011, in the lead up to that season's BCS Championship Game. Prior to that, my only other encounter with "It" happened on December 2, 1989, when the 8-2 Tigers upset the 10-0 Tide -- and in that instance, "It" did not make its appearance until James Joseph leaped across the goal line to close the game's opening drive.

Much like that glorious afternoon 24 years ago, this past Saturday was one on which "It" was borne by a certainty that right was on the side of Auburn, that wrong was on the side of Alabama, and that right will always prevail in the end. It seems (in fact is) way over the top to introduce a biblical concept like right versus wrong into a football rivalry, especially one in which the games are played by people mostly between the ages of 18 and 21; however, there were actual, honest-to-God reasons to use the right/wrong analogy when speaking of the game in '89, and if you care to bone up on them you can start by going here and/or here. 

In 2013 the analogy fits for a number of reasons, chief of which is the way Alabama's players and coaches have been portrayed as inherently superior to everyone else involved in the sport of college football.

Some commentators have suggested that the Crimson Tide might be able to defeat an NFL team, and it is not clear that they were kidding when they said so.

On live national TV, Nick Saban leaped into the arms of AJ McCarron and started politicking for him to win the Heisman.

Over the last two months, every single bit of BCS speculation has been about "who Alabama will play for the national championship." Nary a peep was heard about "who will make it to the national championship game," for everyone knew Alabama would beat Auburn to make it to the SEC Championship Game, where they would then be sure to beat any opponent no matter how strong their record (Missouri is 11-1) and ranking (Missouri is #5).  It was just a matter of who Alabama's victim would be when they held the crystal trophy in January.

When Iron Bowl week arrived, both teams were in the thick of the national championship race. Alabama sat at 11-0 and ranked #1, Auburn at 10-1 and ranked #4, and the game was being played on Auburn's home turf, which usually makes a big difference in the college game. In this most storied of rivalries, it was the first time one of its games had both teams ranked this high, yet no one in the media thought Auburn had any real chance of winning. Like my friend Sandee Foster observed in a text last week, the media would "mention the Iron Bowl and that it's a big game but then go on to talk about if Bama will play FSU or OSU for the natty!"

So when game time arrived, there was a palpable sense that Bama was about to get its comeuppance. Especially with Bo Jackson in attendance and the game taking place on his birthday...and with revered former coach Tommy Tuberville on the Auburn sideline, with his freshman son Tucker suited up as a backup QB...and with the crowd never dropping its noise level even after their team surrendered 21 unanswered points in the second quarter.

The Tigers answered the challenge. After giving up those 21 points, they tied the game by scoring TD's on their last possession before halftime and first possession after it.

A deep punt pinned Alabama back at the Auburn one late in the third quarter. Another punt did the same early in the fourth, but then McCarron hooked up with WR Amari Cooper on a 99-yard touchdown pass that broke the tie and put Alabama ahead 28-21.

In most instances, a play like the McCarron-Cooper score would be a backbreaker that swung all the momentum to the team that completed it. In most instances, it would propel that team to victory. But on Saturday, Auburn answered the bell yet again and tied the game back up when QB Nick Marshall took off to scramble, noticed WR Sammie Coates open down the left sideline, and pulled up just in time to toss him the ball for the tying score.

And finally, there was the decisive play on the final snap of regulation, when Alabama's Adam Griffith attempted a long-shot, 57-yard field goal that came up just short and wide. It was caught by lightning-fast but often-injured senior Chris Davis one yard shy of the back of the end zone. Davis started right, turned left, and made it around the corner while picking up key blocks from his teammates. Then he took off down the sideline, passed midfield, and turned slightly to the inside before sprinting to the end zone with two teammates as an escort and not a single opposing player anywhere near him.

Game Over...Epic...Legend.

For a great video of that run and the reaction to it, go here.

Along the road to victory, Auburn's defense stuffed Alabama's seemingly unstoppable RB TJ Yeldon on fourth and inches in the red zone. Some Tide fans will say that if Saban had just opted for the field goal...but then again, some Tiger fans will point out that their team also went for it in field goal range on fourth and short, and  also got stopped, and therefore the two plays merely canceled each other out and did nothing to alter the outcome.

Some Alabama fans will grumble that Auburn was fortunate to have a kick come up shy of the end line so it could be returned. But Auburn fans will point out that Coach Gus Malzahn intentionally put Davis in the end zone specifically to take advantage of a return opportunity, as it is smart to anticipate that a kick might come down short when it is attempted from 57 yards.

Auburn fans can also point out that their team ran the ball right down Bama's throat, to the tune of 296 yards and 5.7 yards per carry, against a defense that is the SEC's best against the run.

And if any Bammers out there still want to play the "if only ___" game, Auburn fans can point to a major "if only" play from the first quarter that was all but forgotten in all of the post-game commentary. It happened when the Tigers called a play action pass and Nick Marshall threw deep to Ricardo Louis, who was wide open a full 10 yards behind the Alabama secondary and would have surely scored a touchdown -- except for the fact that the throw was not on target and came down behind him rather than in front of him. The Tigers wound up punting instead of scoring, but "if only" the throw had not been behind him, they would have been up 14-0 instead of 7-0 later in the quarter; and with the way momentum can run wild in football games, they might never have fallen behind and needed to come back.

In short, the team that won Saturday was the team that was best, and the scene on Toomer's Corner was a well deserved thing of beauty:

As we say in The Loveliest Village on The Plains: War Eagle!

Note: Pictures are courtesy of the afore-mentioned Sandee Foster.

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